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In 1755 more than half of the population of Scotland lived north of the Tay, and almost one third of the total were natives and residents of the Highland, Gaelic area. For the next fifty years or more the population continued to rise, in some places at a quite staggering rate. Overall, the Highland population by 1830, had risen by about 50 per cent, and in the Outer Isles it had actually more than doubled. A population growth of this sort is usually taken to be an indicator of rising prosperity and such indeed was the case.
Britain was involved more or less continuously in wars between 1742 and 1815. These wars were fought by British armies and warships in America and in India as well as on the European continent, and many Highlanders were recruited into the army, forming Highland regiments, and beginning the tradition of military service to the British crown which has endured ever since. Recruiting soldiers from among their tenants brought advantages to the landowners. Sometimes they were actually rewarded for their recruiting zeal, and, at least, if men went off to fight there were fewer mouths requiring to be fed from the produce of the estate.
Feeding the rapidly rising population on a traditional diet of oatmeal, cheese and meat was an increasing problem, as output of these items could not keep pace with the growth in numbers. One solution had been found in the humble but remarkable potato. In 1743 the Improvers had urged their members to increase production of this plant, which could produce a far greater volume of food per acre than any other crop. One of the early converts to the idea of potato-growing was the chief of Clanranald, who returned from a visit to Ireland in 1743, enthusiastically committed to potato growing. By 1800 potatoes provided 80 per cent or so of the diet of the Highlanders.
With their own people thus provided for, the chiefs were able to make substantial profits by selling the other products of their land to meet the needs of the armed forces, a vast market for meal, cheese, meat, fish, leather, all of which the Highlands provided. Also, a new product was in great demand - seaweed or kelp - which, when dried and burned, left ash which was essential to a wide range of industries, notably glass and soap production. The chemicals necessary in these industries had been traditionally imported, especially from Spain, but that import trade had been greatly impeded by the succession of wars, and a home-produced substitute like kelp was a godsend, for which generous prices would be paid. In 1720 kelp ash was selling at £2 per ton. By 1790 the price was £10 per ton, and by 1800 it stood at £22. This was a boon to landowners. Lord Macdonald was reported to have earned £20,000 per year from the kelp produced from the seashores of his lands, and Clanranald made £98,000 annually. The landowners controlled the new industry totally, and naturally sought to expand it.
Such expansion depended upon the willingness of the tenants to leave their fields and go kelping along the shores. This they were not always willing to do, particularly since the landowners paid wages which were absurdly low in proportion to the profits earned. The chiefs were not willing to reduce their profits by paying more generous wages to their tenants, so some other means had to be found to force the tenants to work in whatever way would bring greater advantage to the chiefs.
The first tactic was to raise rents to levels which produce of the land could not meet. The tenants were thus forced to spend time gathering and burning kelp to meet their new obligations. Secondly, and more damagingly, landowners altered the leases of their tenants, restricting the acreages of their holdings, and thus making it more necessary for them to take up some extra occupation, like kelping or fishing.